The murder of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, is a reminder that African Americans are often the victims of racial profiling, not just by the police, but by many in society.
In the early 1990’s, I worked a grueling job at an investment bank in New York City. Often, when I took a day off or had a vacation, I would stay in New York and do things I rarely got to do because I was always working. On one such day, I sat at the Pulitzer Fountain, across the street from the Plaza Hotel at Central Park South and Fifth Avenue. As I read a book and enjoyed my day, I made an observation. New York City police were stopping black drivers and giving them tickets. Though more than 90% of the vehicles I observed were driven by whites or Hispanics, the police only stopped black drivers. By definition, this was racial profiling.
There were two white police officers parked beside the Plaza Hotel. As cars drove eastbound in gridlock traffic on 58th Street, the officers stopped some of them for what I presume was running a stop sign. Though the cars couldn’t move faster than five miles an hour, the officers aggressively issued tickets. This helped ensure the police met their quota of tickets for the month.
In the opinion of many, there is an unwritten rule that New York City police must issue a certain number of tickets. This helps produce revenue for the city and increases the paperwork of police officers, thereby helping increase overtime pay. Ultimately, this inflates a police officer’s pension benefits at retirement if the current year is part of their pensionable earnings calculation.
After observing this pattern of racial profiling, I started taking notes. At one point, two black men in a commercial van were stopped. After what appeared to be a brief argument between the men and the police officers, the men were handcuffed and placed in the back seat of the police car. I approached the police car and wrote down its license plate number and car number. Then, an officer approached me and asked me what I was doing. Without replying, I wrote down the officer’s badge number. He then boastfully said,” I’m Officer McMurray,” and pointed to his name tag.
I replied, “I’m fine-tuning my documentation so I can report you.”
Officer McMurray replied, “Do you realize what a difficult job this is? We put our life on the line every day!”
I did not respond, but kept writing notes. The police could have harassed me or possibly arrested me for some bogus charge. However, they were scared. They knew what they were doing was wrong. They also clearly saw I was not intimidated.
The police got in their vehicle and drove off with the two black men in the back seat. As I watched, it appeared they were having a discussion. Before they got to the next corner, they stopped their car and let the two black men go – they were free. The police officers then drove away. As the black men walked back to their van, they thanked me.
The most dangerous thing to be in America is not a police officer or firefighter, it’s a black man. I don’t claim to know a solution to this, nor do I accept the fact that this will always be the case. However, to force change, blacks must be vigilant in removing the target clearly placed on us by some – we can’t expect others to do it for us.